Months after saying that accepting more than 50,000 immigrants a year would be “suicidal” for Quebec, the province’s premier is considering increasing the number of immigrants who arrive in the province to 60,000 a year.

Premier François Legault said that will be possible after an immigration reform that will require the vast majority of people who come through the province's economic immigration system to speak French before they arrive.

"From the moment we are able to, because there's real openness on the part of the federal government, say that the increase is only francophones, or people who have mastered French, that completely changes the situation," he told reporters Thursday in Quebec City.

Legault said the potential rise in immigration would come entirely from an increase in the number of people accepted through the Quebec-controlled economic immigration stream.

Sixty-five per cent of immigrants to Quebec come through the economic stream, which is controlled by the province, with the rest coming through the federally-controlled family reunification and refugee programs.

LISTEN on CJAD 800 Radio: Mennie: Has increased immigration become less 'suicidal' for Legault?

Legault said that when he described increased immigration as suicidal last year, he believed that the federal government would require increases in those two categories if Quebec accepted more economic immigrants.

“I thought, at the time, that the federal government wouldn't permit us to increase only the percentage of economic immigrants and, so far, with the discussion we’ve had with the federal government, they are more than open to accept that, so it's changing the picture completely," he said.

If the increased threshold is adopted, Legault said immigration levels would rise gradually to reach 60,000 people a year by 2027.

The actual number of immigrants the province accepts could be even higher, he said, because that figure doesn't include people who come through a fast-track program for graduates of Quebec universities.

However, that program -- which currently requires applicants to have a higher level of French than many workers who would be accepted under the province's new plan and is open to graduates of all Quebec post-secondary institutions -- will be restricted to students who graduate from programs taught in French, or who attended high school in French.

Legault said that as premier of Quebec his primary responsibility is to protect the province's French character.

"Since the last 10, 15, 20 years, we see that the percentage of people speaking French is decreasing, so we have to do something and I think it's important that we request that they speak French before being accepted," he said.

Christine Fréchette, Quebec's Minister of Immigration, Francization and Integration, said the reform -- which will go ahead whether the province decides to increase its immigration threshold or not -- will change the way Quebec selects immigrants, moving away from a point system that rewards, but does not require, knowledge of the French language.

The point system will be replaced by a system where certain criteria, such as French-language knowledge, must be met.

She said that under the new plan, 96 per cent of people who apply to immigrate to Quebec through the economic stream will be required to speak French before coming to the province, by 2027.

That would increase the number of all immigrants to Quebec who speak French from 68 per cent in 2022, to 72 per cent by 2027, if the increase is adopted, or 70 per cent by 2027, if the number of immigrants remains at 50,000 people a year.

Legault said he's not yet committed to the increase, adding that he wants to consult with experts before it is adopted.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.